Commentary Magazine


Topic: China

Castros Ensure That Rubio Isn’t Gambling

Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

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Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

The conceit of the piece is pretty much a repetition of President Obama’s talking points about his reasons for granting the Communist regime diplomatic recognition and other economic benefits. The old policies that revolve around isolating Cuba and forcing it to change have failed. The only hope for improving life there is to embrace the regime and to stop treating it as a pariah. The assumption is not only that Cuba will change enough to justify the move. It’s also based on the idea that most Americans want no part of what is seen as a vestige of cold war rivalries.

That’s certainly true of the core readership of the Times but, as has also been repeated endlessly in the last few days, younger Cuban-Americans are no longer as wedded to hostility to the Castro regime as their parents and grandparents. The point the president and his media cheering section is trying to make is that Rubio’s hawkish position is not only outdated but that it also doesn’t have much of a constituency even in the Republican Party, as evidence by the silence of some leading Republicans on the issue such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the applause for Obama’s move on the part of libertarians like Senator Rand Paul.

Liberals think that although Rubio is getting a lot of attention by staking out a “hard-line” position on Cuba, the Florida senator is actually making it clear that his views are outdated and about to be eclipsed by events that will soon lead to normal relations with Havana. In this manner, they think he will alienate his core Cuban constituency that will enjoy and exploit the new reality as well as a business community that is always willing to exploit any new markets in search of profits.

But the problem with all these assumptions is that there is very little sign that Cuba will evolve in the direction President Obama thinks it will or that Cuban-Americans or Republican voters will reject Rubio’s message.

First of all, the objective of the Cuban regime is not to prepare the way for a transition to democracy or even to open up its economy to foreign investors. Raul Castro does want some infusion of Western cash to keep his failed state afloat now that the Soviet Union is dead and Venezuela is bankrupt. But he isn’t any more interested in the post-Cold War model of China than he is that of Russia.

As Walter Russell Mead, a supporter of the deal with Cuba, noted earlier this week in the American Interest, the regime is well aware that a Republican Congress will never lift the embargo on their country. That’s fine with the Castros, who want to keep strict limits on the influx of foreign business and investment. Unlike Russia, which scrapped both its political and economic systems and China, which embraced capitalism for its economy while maintaining a Communist dictatorship, the Cuban leaders want to keep both their tyranny and their bankrupt socialist system. All they want from the United States is just enough investment to keep them going without actually generating any sort of reform.

Rubio’s position is no gamble because the Castro brothers have no intention of letting Cuba become Russia or China. They want, and with the help of President Obama, may well get, a third option that enables them to preserve their regime and do nothing to advance the standard of living in Cuba.

What Rubio has done is to draw attention to the fact that in exchange for giving something of great value to a brutal and dictatorial regime, President Obama has gotten nothing in return. The president’s blind ideological faith in engagement with foes of the United States has been demonstrated time and again with nations like Russia and Iran. But considering how little he has gained for these appeasement campaigns, the notion that history will judge Obama kindly for these moves is more of a leap of liberal faith than a sober assessment of reality.

Far from a gamble, Rubio’s bold stand presents no risk at all for him. The chances that the regime in Havana will allow anything that could be mistaken for liberal reform are virtually non-existent. Nor is it likely that the base of the Republican Party, which feels such disgust at the president’s weakness and willingness to sell out American values in order to gain a meaningless diplomatic triumph, will punish Rubio for pointing this out.

It remains to be seen whether this issue will be enough to propel Rubio into a viable 2016 presidential bid. But it does solidify his reputation as one of the leading spokesmen, if not the most important spokesman for his party on foreign-policy issues. With Americans rightly re-focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and worries about a nuclear Iran being exacerbated by Obama’s determination to secure a nuclear deal at any cost, the president’s Cuban gambit not only helps keep foreign policy a major issue for 2016 but also highlights Rubio’s greatest strength and one on which he is far closer to the views of most Republicans than someone like Paul.

But whether or not he runs for president, the facts on the ground in Cuba are bound to make Rubio look smart. Just as President Obama’s mockery of Mitt Romney for embracing the politics of the 1980s on Russia now looks pretty embarrassing, it’s likely that the same will be said of those who think Rubio is on the wrong side of history on Cuba.

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Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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Anticorruption or Power Grab in China?

After Stalin died, his longtime secret police chief, the sadistic Lavrentiy Beria, was arrested and shot in 1953 on the orders of the Politburo. A similar fate–minus, for the time being, the execution–seems to have befallen Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Politburo Standing Committee in China with responsibility for domestic security. On the orders of President Xi Jingping, and with the compliance of the Politburo, he has been arrested and charged with a raft of offenses including bribery, disclosing state secrets, and adultery.

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After Stalin died, his longtime secret police chief, the sadistic Lavrentiy Beria, was arrested and shot in 1953 on the orders of the Politburo. A similar fate–minus, for the time being, the execution–seems to have befallen Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Politburo Standing Committee in China with responsibility for domestic security. On the orders of President Xi Jingping, and with the compliance of the Politburo, he has been arrested and charged with a raft of offenses including bribery, disclosing state secrets, and adultery.

His arrest is shocking because in the past current and retired Communist kingpins were considered invulnerable. No longer. The Bo Xilai arrest was only a start to a wider purge of corrupt officials that Xi Jinping is carrying out. But is good government really his motive–or is he simply interested in accumulating more power for himself and is he using the anti-corruption crusade as a cover to depose various rivals?

There is division on this question among Sinologists but the bulk of the evidence points to the latter conclusion–that Xi Jinping is accumulating personal power unprecedented for any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong under the guise of fighting corruption. Indeed it is striking that, even amid this anti-corruption campaign, China is viewed in the Transparency International survey as being more corrupt than ever.

China actually dropped 20 places to rank 100th in corruption among the 175 nations surveyed. The New York Times quotes a Transparency International spokesman saying that the anticorruption drive is missing “stronger laws on bribery, access to information, whistle-blower protection, more open budgets and asset declarations.” In short, what is missing is the rule of law.

Unfortunately, it appears that China is not seeing the impartial application of rules against bribery. What it is seeing is a highly selective personal vendetta carried out by one Communist boss against other Communist bosses. That is not going to reduce the longterm questions about China’s future, which is undermined by corruption and lack of accountability and freedom

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A Superficial “Success” in Beijing

Desperate to counter the near-universal impression that the Obama presidency has been a dismal failure in foreign policy, the president’s aides have been eagerly flacking the storyline that his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing was a big success. To buttress this contention, administration spinmeisters are touting principally an agreement signed by the two men designed to limit carbon emissions.

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Desperate to counter the near-universal impression that the Obama presidency has been a dismal failure in foreign policy, the president’s aides have been eagerly flacking the storyline that his meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing was a big success. To buttress this contention, administration spinmeisters are touting principally an agreement signed by the two men designed to limit carbon emissions.

The reality, as Reuters points out, is that the plan is “largely symbolic” and “did not break significant new ground.” The same might be said of other agreements to marginally increase military-to-military cooperation etc.–the kind of summit bait that is laboriously negotiated beforehand for unveiling at such events but that doesn’t amount to much.

In many ways, more significant than anything that was said at the meeting was what happened while the two leaders were meeting: the People’s Liberation Army took the opportunity to test China’s new J-31 stealth fighter. This is a classic in-your-face move by the Chinese leadership, one that duplicates a notorious J-20 stealth fighter flight that occurred when then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates visited in 2011. Both stealth aircraft are symbols of China’s rising military might and its growing ambition to push the U.S. Armed Forces out of their long-standing supremacy in the Western Pacific. Moreover, since both planes are based on purloined F-35 plans, their display is also a sign of how little Beijing cares about Washington’s complaints about stolen intellectual property.

And what did Obama do in the face of this latest Chinese muscle-flexing–which follows far more dangerous moves to claim disputed islands from Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other neighboring states? Perhaps President Obama had some hard words for China’s president behind closed doors but one rather doubts it. In fact the New York Times account strongly suggests otherwise:

For his part, Mr. Obama tried to keep the emphasis on working with China. …

Mr. Obama said he had assured Mr. Xi that the United States had nothing to do with the protests in Hong Kong. “These are issues ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and China to decide,” he said of the protests demanding fully democratic elections, though he voiced support for the right of free expression.

In general, Mr. Obama’s references to human rights were carefully calibrated. He noted America’s refusal to recognize a separate Taiwan or Tibet. He also praised China for its role in nuclear negotiations with Iran, its response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and its dealings with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Mr. Obama played down a recent wave of virulently negative coverage of him and the United States in China’s state-run media. Tough press coverage, he said, came with being a public official, whether in China or the United States. “I’m a big believer in actions, not words,” he added.

Again, it’s possible that there was more to the Xi-Obama meeting than reported here, but if this is a complete and accurate account it suggests a shameful kowtowing by the American president. It sounds as if Obama said little or nothing about China’s terrible human-rights record and that his support for the Hong Kong freedom demonstrators was at best perfunctory and marginal–much like his failure to back the Green Revolution in Iran early in his presidency. He did not even take strong umbrage at the violently anti-American tone that much of the Chinese media has adopted at the direction of Beijing–he chose instead to pretend that Chinese media outlets are as free of government control as those in the United States. And he thanked China for doing little or nothing with regard to Iran, Ebola, and North Korea–in fact when it comes to both Iran and North Korea, China has been far more of a hindrance than a help.

By refusing to raise difficult issues in a forceful way, any president can assure a superficially “successful” summit meeting with a foreign leader–i.e. one that ends with smiles and handshakes. But the cost of doing so is to create the potential for much worse trouble down the road. Unfortunately that has been the story of Obama foreign policy, whether it comes to the failed “reset” with Russia or his dealings with China.

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Historical Truth and the Future of Asia

Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

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Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

I refer to the way Japan’s current government led by Shinzo Abe has sought to revive nationalist fever by, among other things, continuing to own up to the country’s World War Two atrocities in China and throughout Asia. In recent years, this deplorable revisionism has complicated relations between Japan and Korea, which suffered under Tokyo’s brutal rule throughout the first half of the 20th century. But it has also enflamed relations between Japan and China, a regional superpower and a rising military force in the Pacific. While the barbarism practiced by the Japanese military in China curing the 1930s and 40s may seem like ancient history to Americans, it is still very much part of China’s national consciousness. And though we think of Japan as a peaceful economic partner of the United States which left its savage past behind after Hiroshima, the contrast between Germany’s honest if sometimes problematic dedication to tell the truth about the Nazis to its own people and Japan’s continuing denials still has the potential to play havoc with the politics of contemporary Asia.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Herbert P. Bix writes in today’s New York Times, the publication of an official biography of Emperor Hirohito shows that Japan is still refusing to tell the unvarnished truth about its past. The book, reportedly the work of an army of Japanese civil servants and historians who have been compiling it since Hirohito’s death in 1989, appears to stick to the old story that the emperor was a mere puppet in the hands of the country’s military. Moreover, Bix was told by a Japanese newspaper that asked him to write about an embargoed excerpt from the book that he could not comment about the emperor’s “role and responsibility” in the war.

Ironically, as Bix notes, the U.S. was complicit in this cover up for its own reasons. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, it served the cause of the American occupation to connive in the myth that the emperor was innocent of any part in his country’s aggression and the atrocities it committed in the name of its imperial ambition. The agreement to let the emperor remain in place helped smooth the transformation of Japan from a militarized authoritarian state to a pacifist democracy.

But though the myth of the helpless emperor was useful, it was always a lie. As Bix and other historians have demonstrated, far from the puppet depicted in most postwar analyses of Japan’s actions, Hirohito was a dynamic and powerful leader. Indeed, the transformation of the country’s government from one in which the emperor truly was a figurehead into a system in which he exercised direct power was the engine that drove Japan’s 19th century modernization. What historians call the Meiji Restoration—after Hirohito’s grandfather who took back power from the shoguns that had ruled Japan for centuries—was also directly linked to an expansionist spirit that led to war with first China, then Tsarist Russia, and ultimately to the Nazi-like aggression that led it to occupy most of China and to embark on a disastrous and bloody war with the United States.

The decision by General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman administration to give Hirohito a pass was also rooted in a lack of information about how Japan’s imperial system worked. Even during the war when anti-Japanese sentiment was its height, Americans focused their animus on General Hideki Tojo, the country’s prime minister from 1941 to 1944 rather than the emperor who had authorized the aggression carried out in his name. Tojo and other Japanese leaders were rightly held accountable in the Pacific version of the Nuremberg tribunals but they went to their deserved deaths knowing that doing so helped save the emperor from having to account for his own role in their crimes. But it also facilitated the creation of a mindset by which the Japanese seemed to think their part in World War Two was confined to having the first atomic bombs dropped on their cities and having to put up with an American occupation.

Why does this matter? As Bix points out, Japan’s determination to avoid telling the truth makes its neighbors suspicious of any effort to revise the postwar “peace constitution” imposed on the country by the United States. Bix wrongly denounces America’s justified concerns about China’s troubling drive to become a global military power and the need for Japan to assume some responsibility for protecting itself. But he’s right that the rest of Asia, including U.S. allies like Korea and the Philippines will never trust Japan until it owns up to its past.

If Japan wants to return to the world stage it will have to stop lying about Hirohito and the atrocities committed in his name in the last century. Just as important, Tokyo’s obsession with ignoring or covering up its history helps China’s contemporary tyrants whip up nationalism that can be used to suppress any hope of democracy.

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Hong Kong and the Dream of Chinese Democracy

Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

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Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

These thoughts are prompted, of course, by images of all the people who have been occupying the streets of central Hong Kong for three days now to demand direct election of their chief executive without limiting candidates to a list vetted and approved by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators on Sunday, but that did not disperse them. Now the security forces have backed off to ponder their next move.

From Beijing’s perspective this is a no-win situation. If they send the troops out to clear the streets by force, they will risk international opprobrium–and, perhaps more significant, delay for another generation any hope that Taiwan will agree to voluntarily become part of the People’s Republic of China. After all Beijing’s key selling point to Taipei is that it could enjoy the “one country, two systems” model implemented in Hong Kong after the British left in 1997. If Chinese forces carry out a slaughter in the streets of Hong Kong that message will be exposed as hollow. If, on the other hand, the government caves in to the demonstrators’ demands it could expose Beijing to more demands for democracy from dissatisfied people on the mainland.

There is not much the U.S. can do to affect the situation one way or the other beyond showing clearly where our sympathies lie. There is no doubt a debate going on in the administration as I write this between the usual, predictable parties–the realists who say we have to accommodate ourselves to Beijing at any cost and the human-rights advocates who believe we have to stand up forcibly for the rights of people in Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world.

The Realpolitikers have a better case when they argue for overlooking human-rights violations among our allies–countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia whose strategic support we need and where the alternative to an illiberal but pro-American monarchy could well be an Islamist dictatorship that is anti-American. But such considerations should not restrain us from pushing for democracy in countries such as Iran and China and Russia that are most decidedly not our allies–that are, in fact, either rivals or outright enemies.

China is in the midst of a massive defense buildup designed to dominate East Asia while pushing U.S. power out of the region. It is undertaking aggressive maneuvers with its navy against U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines. It is mounting nonstop cyber attacks on U.S. computer networks. It supports rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. And it works hand in glove with Russia to block international action in such countries as Syria. True, China also trades with the U.S. and holds a lot of our debt, but it is hardly our friend: At best it is a rival with whom we can do business but only warily.

In short, we should not be constrained by fears of alienating China from speaking out forcefully about its human-rights violations. The U.S. should champion the cause of Chinese democracy by every means available, much as we once worked by peaceful means to undermine the Soviet bloc. The Hong Kong demonstrations are a sign that Chinese people also want freedom–that even in the most prosperous city in China the people are not willing to trade away their “inalienable rights” for big cars and fancy apartments and the latest in high-tech electronics.

The people of Hong Kong are risking their lives for freedom. We should do what we can–and admittedly it’s not much–to stand with them.

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What Israel Really Wants from Ties with China and India

Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Rory Miller made the classic mistake of using accurate facts to jump to an erroneous conclusion. He gleefully pronounced the failure of Israel’s effort to convert burgeoning economic ties with India and China into diplomatic capital, asserting that while Israel had expected these ties to “help secure greater international support” for its positions, in reality, China and India have both maintained staunchly pro-Palestinian policies. But though Miller is right about the Asian powers’ policies, he’s utterly wrong about the diplomatic gains Israel hoped to reap from these relationships.

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Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Rory Miller made the classic mistake of using accurate facts to jump to an erroneous conclusion. He gleefully pronounced the failure of Israel’s effort to convert burgeoning economic ties with India and China into diplomatic capital, asserting that while Israel had expected these ties to “help secure greater international support” for its positions, in reality, China and India have both maintained staunchly pro-Palestinian policies. But though Miller is right about the Asian powers’ policies, he’s utterly wrong about the diplomatic gains Israel hoped to reap from these relationships.

For instance, Miller makes much of the fact that China still votes against Israel on every conceivable issue at the UN. But you’d have to be an idiot–which most senior Israeli politicians aren’t–to expect it to do otherwise.

Flipping China into the pro-Israel camp might be possible if and when it democratizes, since it’s one of the few countries where public opinion actually leans pro-Israel. Indeed, as the Australian paper Business Spectator noted this month, China was among the few places worldwide where Israel was actually winning the social media war during the summer’s fighting in Gaza. And it certainly makes sense for Israel to cultivate this public support in preparation for the day when democratization occurs. But right now, China remains a Communist dictatorship that sees America as its chief foreign-policy rival. Thus as long as Washington (thankfully) remains Israel’s main patron at the UN, Beijing will naturally take the anti-Israel side–not because it cares so passionately about the Palestinian cause (which, unlike Miller, I don’t believe it does), but because it cares about the anti-American cause.

India, despite growing ties with Washington, also has a long tradition of anti-Americanism, as well as a large Muslim minority. Thus New Delhi was never a likely candidate for UN support, either.

And in fact, Miller doesn’t cite any Israeli politician who actually espoused such unrealistic expectations. He simply assumes, on the basis of vague bromides like Naftali Bennett’s “diplomacy can follow economy,” that they musthave held such expectations.

But in reality, Israel is seeking a very different foreign-policy benefit from its trade ties with India and China–one it has never spelled out explicitly, for very good reason: What it wants is an economic insurance policy against European countries that it still officially labels as allies.

The EU currently accounts for about one-third of Israel’s exports. This constitutes a dangerous vulnerability, because Europe is the one place worldwide where Israel faces a real danger of economic boycotts and sanctions. Granted, few European leaders actually want this; they consider the economic relationship with Israel mutually beneficial. But European leaders are generally far more pro-Israel than their publics, and since European countries are democracies, public opinion matters.

To date, the public’s anti-Israel sentiment has produced only marginal sanctions, like those on Israeli exports from the West Bank (a minuscule percentage of Israel’s total exports). But Israel can’t rule out the possibility that public pressure will eventually produce more stringent sanctions if Jerusalem continues refusing to capitulate to EU demands on the Palestinian issue that are antithetical to its security. In short, Israel could someday face a devastating choice between its economic needs and its security needs–unless it can diversify its trade enough to be able to weather EU sanctions if and when they occur.

And that’s precisely what Israel seeks from China and India, two countries with a history of not allowing policy disagreements to interfere with business: If it can build up its Asian trade enough to reduce its economic dependence on Europe, it will be better placed to withstand European pressure to adopt policies inimical to its survival.

Whether Israel will succeed in this goal remains to be seen. But if it does, that will be a diplomatic gain of unparalleled importance–even if it never wins Chinese or Indian support in a single UN vote.

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China’s New Era of Disobedience?

A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

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A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

While those young students in Tiananmen Square were attempting to create new freedoms for themselves, today’s protests in Hong Kong, by equally young students, are aimed at ensuring that the island does not lose any more of its freedoms. In that sense, they may well be more passionate and potentially explosive.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations being called the “umbrella revolution” was Beijing’s decision not to allow free elections in 2017 for Hong Kong’s chief executive, per the 1984 joint declaration agreement with Great Britain that set the guidelines for post-colonial Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing will allow only a handful of pre-approved candidates on the ballots. Hong Kongers rightly assume this is just the beginning of a broader move to restrict their freedoms, including an independent judiciary and press.

Yet Hong Kong should not be seen in isolation from China’s broader crackdown on any potential liberalization or separatism in areas it controls or hopes to control. As I wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, Beijing is comfortable risking greater blowback to try and stamp out even moderate voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence for criticizing the government. China’s military and police presence has been strengthened in both Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, and there has been no reduction in the military threat to Taiwan. Even smaller issues, such as occupied Indian territory or territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have seen Beijing’s position harden and its military activities increase.

These are worrisome signs that President Xi Jinping, who is just 18 months into a decade-long rule, is comfortable flexing Chinese muscle, intimidating his neighbors, and cracking down on domestic unrest. Whether out of confidence or fear, Beijing is adopting a far more antagonistic attitude that makes it ever harder for it to back down.

That is why what happens now in Hong Kong is so important. If a tiny island of 7 million people can successfully oppose Beijing’s will, then the gates will be opened to the dissatisfied in Xinjiang and Tibet, on Taiwan, and possibly even on the mainland. This is something that Beijing cannot allow. Yet should the People’s Liberation Army move out of their Hong Kong barracks to support the territory’s police, or other pressure be put on the island’s government to suppress the demonstrators, then the fiction of Hong Kong independence and of China’s essentially benign nature will be exploded.

Sadly, such brutality did not prevent China from scaling even greater heights 25 years ago after Tiananmen, but today such an outcome it will mean either a China of far greater strength and influence, or an Asia of greater instability and possibly conflict, or possibly both.

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The End of American Naval Supremacy?

One of the most depressing things when I first went to Iraqi Kurdistan in the year 2000 was that while so many Iraqis understood that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s wars and decisions had frozen them in time, few truly understood the exponential advance of the rest of the world. Fourteen years ago, for example, students at Sulaimani University were still learning BASIC in their computer classes and faculty trained in the East Bloc had little concept of email let alone the Internet.

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One of the most depressing things when I first went to Iraqi Kurdistan in the year 2000 was that while so many Iraqis understood that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s wars and decisions had frozen them in time, few truly understood the exponential advance of the rest of the world. Fourteen years ago, for example, students at Sulaimani University were still learning BASIC in their computer classes and faculty trained in the East Bloc had little concept of email let alone the Internet.

So it seems to be the case with the United States and our military planners now. Four days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke of how American forces would soon be at pre-World War II numbers. Sequestration will force a further retraction. Adm. James “Ace” Lyons, U.S. Navy (retired) has noted that he commanded more ships in the Pacific Ocean during the Carter administration than exist in the entire U.S. Navy today. Whereas Democrats and Republican administrations both once sought the capability to fight two major wars simultaneously, the Pentagon now would have trouble mustering forces for one such conflict. This, of course, would be an open invitation for rogues and adversaries to take action while the United States is down or distracted. Enemies don’t take a pause just because Congress does. China most certainly has not.

Since World War II, the Navy has provided the backbone of America’s military strength, enabling the projection of force across the globe. And the aircraft carrier is the pride of the Navy, a veritable floating city and an immense system melding people with technology. This is certainly the case with the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest carrier officially launched this past November, and the first of the new, post-Nimitz Class carrier. The Navy has invested more than $12 billion in the Ford and its new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System. If carriers have a lifespan of 50 years (assuming the Pentagon can conduct regular maintenance and overhauls), then will the Ford last until 2064?

Not if China has its way. China’s economic health and internal stability might be exaggerated, but its military build-up is not. China doesn’t try to do everything the U.S. military can do, but it has instead concentrated on negating America’s strengths while pursuing its own, for example, with hypersonic aircraft. The Chinese make no secret of their work to develop anti-satellite weaponry, but it is their work to develop carrier-killer missiles that should really frighten Congress and American military planners. Imagine: a single hypersonic missile that can sink a ship carrying 5,000 Americans without any efficient defense. Like a car accident in slow motion, it appears that defense and naval analysts acknowledge the problem but yet the United States appears unable or unwilling to invest in what is necessary to counter the threat. Instead, as the Chinese continue to develop and deploy the missile, the Chuck Hagel defense simply seems to be stay beyond the range of the missile, effectively ceding Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and most of Southeast Asia to a Chinese sphere of influence.

It’s not just the carrier-killer missile which is a problem. This past June, the National Defense University released a report charting China’s continuing progress developing new, faster, and more precise cruise missiles. The authors note:

The potentially supersonic speed, small radar signature, and very low altitude flight profile of cruise missiles stress air defense systems and airborne surveillance and tracking radars, increasing the likelihood that they will successfully penetrate defenses.

Continuing to outline the report, The Diplomat explains:

Moreover, cruise missiles can be produced cheaply, allowing China to acquire large quantities of them. This is important because it could allow the PLA to exploit simple arithmetic in overcoming U.S. and allied missile defense systems. That is, the PLA could launch enough cruise missiles to simply overwhelm existing missile defense systems. Indeed, the report states Beijing believes that cruise missiles possess a 9:1 cost advantage over defenses against them. Thus, the PLA might exploit a quantity over quality approach, the exact opposite of the kind of force structure the U.S. military has outlined for its future. “Employed in salvos, perhaps in tandem with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles could saturate defenses with large numbers of missiles arriving at a specific target in a short time,” the report notes.

On September 10, China’s official television’s Xinwen Live News program discussed and described new work on China’s C802A and C602 anti-ship cruise missiles:

Senior Guan told us that the gross weight of this missile is only about one ton, but it can hit targets more than a hundred kilometers away and can quickly hit and sink or seriously damage 3,000-ton battleships. Does this small missile really have such great power?

[Guan Shiyi,missile expert from the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation] This is because the warhead has a characteristic, which is called armor-piercing explosion. It will pierce through first and then explode inside the warship. Therefore, its kill effect is very good.

There is a serious problem when adversaries develop technologies to neutralize the next generation of America’s Navy even before that generation is fully deployed. The United States has not lost a carrier in battle since World War II. Ignoring problems or convincing ourselves that the unthinkable will not happen, or believing that diplomacy can neutralize the vulnerability, is policy malpractice. Not only does it waste tens of billions of dollars but it puts the lives of American servicemen at risk and the security of America’s allies.

Perhaps it’s time to ask Secretary Hagel what he sees the second-order effects of losing uncontested naval supremacy might be, whether he sees uncontested naval supremacy as a worthwhile goal, and, if so—nothing can be taken for granted in the age of Obama—how the United States will maintain its naval supremacy in the face of Chinese anti-ship cruise and carrier killer missile developments.

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Obama’s Luck on the World Stage

When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

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When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

Of course, a resurgent Russia is just one of many challenges the United States now faces. Obama kept his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, only to be forced by the eruption of ISIS to re-engage at least symbolically even if not substantively. Libya—the marquee example of leading from behind—has descended into chaos. And Obama’s inaction in Syria has enabled a bad situation to grow much worse. Turkey has transformed itself into an anti-Western autocracy more intent on encouraging the growth of radical Islamism abroad than promoting peace at home. By acting more like a zoning commissioner than a world leader, Obama has managed to take Israeli-Palestinian relations to their nadir.

So how could it be that Obama is lucky?

It’s always tempting for partisans to blame events on the world stage upon the occupant of the Oval Office rather than the rogue who has free will. It is absolutely true that the world does not revolve around Washington D.C. That said, Obama’s decisions have contributed to some of the worst aspects of the current crises. Rather than see Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia as a sign of Putin’s true character, Obama sought to appease the Russian leader. Pulling the rug out from allies like Poland and the Czech Republic only encouraged Putin further by depicting the United States as desperate for a deal regardless of the cost to its allies. Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher completed the trifecta by acquiescing to almost every Russian demand in order to come to agreement on the START treaty, and then by downplaying if not hiding Russian cheating.

Nor would ISIS have made the advances it made in recent months had the United States maintained a residual force in Iraq or moved to strike at the radicals as they gathered strength in Syria. While Obama prized leading from behind in Libya, that decision came at the cost of failing to secure Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s arms caches, leading extremists to seize thousands of surface-to-air missiles and enabling a weapons flow which has destabilized a broad swath of the Sahel, including Mali—once ranked by Freedom House as the most free majority-Muslim country on earth.

But consider this: As bad as Vladimir Putin is, imagine that China had a ruler not only as nationalistic (it does) but as willing to use brute military force to achieve its aims (at present, China is happy to posture and build its capabilities). Why work diplomatically to take Taiwan back into its fold when they could achieve their aim in days. It would be a pretty safe bet that Obama might finger wag, but he wouldn’t do a thing. Or imagine North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un interpreted Obama’s inaction as reason to turn Seoul—well within range of North Korea’s artillery—into a sea of fire. At worst, the North Korean leader would face a press conference with Obama threatening to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations. Back in 1982, an economically failing Argentina decided to distract its public by seizing the British-held Falkland Islands. Today, the same thing could occur, only Britain is too impotent to respond and the White House—with its misguided notion of colonial guilt—might actually side with Buenos Aires. ISIS has marched across the heart of the Middle East, but it has yet to topple Jordan or Lebanon, or teach Turkey a listen or two about blowback. That might simply be a matter of time, however: King Abdullah II of Jordan is popular everywhere but within his own country, and ISIS is gaining momentum.

Simply put, the world could be far more dangerous than it is right now. That China, North Korea, Iran, Argentina, and other aggressors or potential aggressors haven’t made their move is more a matter of luck than the natural outcome of Obama’s policies.

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America: the Popular Hegemon

There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

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There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

Those numbers are all the more impressive when you compare the standing of America’s rivals. Russia’s negative ratings have spiked–now 43 percent of those surveyed view Putinland unfavorably while 34 percent have a positive view. As for China–whose diplomatic offensive at American expense has often been noted–it outscores the U.S. in popularity in only one region: the Middle East. Everywhere else–Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America–the U.S. is more popular.

When asked which country is their top ally, respondents in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam all answered the “U.S.” Only respondents in Malaysia and Pakistan described China as their top ally and the U.S. as their top threat. In Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China was described as the top threat. (Indonesians seem confused–they named the U.S. as both the top ally and the top threat.)

Even more interesting is the fact that large majorities in all of China’s neighbors–and even in China itself–are worried that “territorial disputes between China and neighboring states could lead to a military conflict.” The survey indicates that more than 90 percent of those surveyed in the Philippines are worried as are more than 80 percent of those surveyed in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in China itself more than 60 percent of those surveyed are worried about war.

The implication is clear: the U.S. still has a lot of capital in the world while China is rapidly dissipating whatever goodwill it might once have enjoyed with its aggressive and bombastic behavior. Obviously there is a lot more to foreign policy than popularity–it would be nice to be respected, not just liked–but nevertheless the survey does show an important and often under-appreciated source of American strength: namely the fact that most people around the world do not view us as a threat, no matter how powerful we may be, even when American behavior (e.g., on surveillance and drones) comes in for so much criticism. We are the benevolent superpower, the popular hegemon–not just in our own minds but in the minds of most other people around the world.

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Obama and the New Global Instability

Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

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Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous.

The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.

The story went on to say this:

In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.

Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.

The Journal story should be read along with this story from the New York Times published earlier this month that reports this:

Speaking at West Point in May, President Obama laid out a blueprint for fighting terrorism that relies less on American soldiers, like the cadets in his audience that day, and more on training troops in countries where those threats had taken root.

But this indirect approach, intended to avoid costly, bloody wars like the one the United States waged in Iraq, immediately collided with reality when a lethal jihadi insurgency swept across the same Iraqi battlefields where thousands of Americans had lost their lives.

The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.

While the militants from ISIS have moved swiftly to establish a caliphate from eastern Syria to central Iraq, the White House is struggling to repel them with measures that administration officials concede will take months or longer to be effective.

About these stories, I want to make several points, starting with this one: Mr. Obama said that if elected his approach would be characterized by “smart diplomacy.” The result would be that he would “remake the world” and “heal the planet.” And during the first summer of his presidency, Mr. Obama said his policies would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world and “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”

Some new dawn.

President Obama has not only not achieved what he said he would; the world may well be, as Senator John McCain put it this weekend, “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.” Mr. Obama’s role in this turmoil depends on the particular case we’re talking about, but it’s certainly the case that (a) his policies have amplified and accelerated some of the problems around the world while failing to mitigate others and (b) measured against his own standards, the president has failed miserably.

Beyond that, though, his underlying philosophy–non-intervention, ending America’s involvement in wars instead of winning them, “leading from behind,” consciously making America a less powerful force in the world–has been tested in real time, against real circumstances. And it’s fair to say, I think, that not only has Mr. Obama failed (in part by being exceptionally incompetent at statecraft), but so has his left-leaning ideology, his worldview.

Finally, what Mr. Obama should have learned by now is that his confidence in his abilities were wildly exaggerated, based on nothing he had actually achieved. That the world is vastly more complicated than he ever imagined. And that being a successful diplomat is harder than being a community organizer. One might hope that Mr. Obama would be a wee bit chastened by now and learn something about modesty and his own limitations. But I rather doubt it, since he appears to me to be a man of startlingly little self-knowledge.

Every president learns that it’s easier to give speeches than to govern well, to criticize others than to help build a peaceful and ordered world. But no president I’m aware of has suffered from a wider gap between what he said and what he has been able to produce. We’ve entered a perilous moment in world affairs, and we have as chief executive a man who is wholly out of his depth. These are not good times for this exceptional nation.

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Religious Freedom Should Be Foreign-Policy Priority

Reports from Western China suggest that the Chinese government has demanded the local Muslim population cease fasting during Ramadan. While the New York Times’s Tom Friedman and other columnists may sing the Chinese dictatorship’s praises, little marks tyranny as much as repression of religious freedom. China takes it to a new level when they demand people eat who otherwise have refrained from eating during the day. Government overreach is pretty clear when it seeks to dictate when to eat and when not to.

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Reports from Western China suggest that the Chinese government has demanded the local Muslim population cease fasting during Ramadan. While the New York Times’s Tom Friedman and other columnists may sing the Chinese dictatorship’s praises, little marks tyranny as much as repression of religious freedom. China takes it to a new level when they demand people eat who otherwise have refrained from eating during the day. Government overreach is pretty clear when it seeks to dictate when to eat and when not to.

Too often diplomats whitewash adversaries in order to make diplomacy easier. Easier diplomacy, however, isn’t necessarily more effective, especially if it does not reflect reality. It never makes sense to gear U.S. policy to what diplomats wish an adversary would be rather than what it actually is. Realism shouldn’t mean blind diplomacy with enemies; it should instead require dealing with reality.

While religious freedom may not seem a paramount U.S. national-security interest at first glance, it is perhaps the greatest window into the character and sincerity of any regime. The purpose of diplomacy is to change behavior. Governments can easily promise concessions on nuclear weapons, other conventional weaponry, ballistic missile programs, or terrorism. Often they lie, knowing American diplomats would rather cover for their lies than risk talks collapsing. A close study of diplomacy with rogues and adversaries suggest that respect for religious freedom can be correlated directly to those states’ and groups’ willingness to adhere to their other negotiated agreements.

Religious freedom, however, is easy to monitor. It may not substitute for other issues of more immediate national-security concern, but it is a barometer of sincerity and a metric for more substantive change among the states which most often threaten international order. Perhaps if religious freedom and individual liberty are to remain part of the American brand, no U.S. administration or American diplomat should be shy about standing up for either.

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Why Hillary Complained About America’s “Brutal” Politics

In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

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In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

Ed Morrissey notes at the link that “there was never going to be a good time for a gaffe of this scale, but it’s hard to think of a worse time for it,” considering the raging sectarian conflict in Iraq that has ISIS marching toward Baghdad, the bloody election season in Afghanistan, the setbacks in Burma, and the Assad “election” in Syria, where the body count has been in the six digits for some time now. He adds:

Hillary wants to run on her record as Secretary of State, in part based on the amount of travel she undertook in that role. It’s indisputable that she traveled around the world, but she doesn’t appear to have learned anything from her travels. Aung Sang Suu Kyi might have a different perspective on brutal in relation to political systems, or perhaps the anti-Chavistas in Venezuela could have informed Hillary of what the word actually means. For that matter, nearly everyone in Syria could have explained it to her back in 2011.

That’s an important point. She went into her job at State with an eye toward 2016. So she studiously avoided the kinds of issues that would bog her down, risk adding major failures to her resume, or prejudice the sides in a dispute she would want to take up later on if she won the presidency. That left traveling. A lot. When asked to name her accomplishments at State, she can’t. Neither can her defenders (try as they might). It always comes down to traveling. She’s been everywhere, man.

But what did she learn? Not enough, apparently. Not that anyone really takes this comment at face value. Rather, this is another instance of Clinton’s overly defensive reflex to work the refs. American politics ain’t beanbag, it’s true. But it’s closer to it than much of the world’s politics.

Clinton has been subject to some unfair attacks–just like other would-be presidents–but she has always taken a conspiratorial view of the world bordering on paranoia. She will be treated far better on the campaign trail than any Republican, and if she wins her party’s nomination she’ll see that right away. She will persist, however, in treating all criticism of her as part of the battle progress (represented by Clinton) must fight against bias, bigotry, and regression (represented chiefly by Republicans, but also journalists who ask her questions).

Clinton was secretary of state at a momentous time (isn’t it always?) for the world, with revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and all the way to Russia’s borders. But in Russia, as in countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, those looking to overthrow their rulers could only have dreamed of the task that faces Hillary: a free and fair election and a peaceful transfer of power. She does the many brave and brutalized dissidents around the world a disservice by putting herself in their company.

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Obama’s International Legacy: Fait Accompli

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

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President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

With United States power in retreat and with populists and dictators across the globe concluding that they can act with impunity, never has the danger been so real, not only in the current crisis spots but in Taiwan, the Falkland Islands, the Baltics, and other lands aggressors and dictators crave. All that matters in the new world order is brute strength and the will to use it. The most intractable diplomatic problems will no longer be solved by diplomacy, but rather by unilateralism. Of course, some critics might say unilateralism is simply what America engaged in for decades. That’s more propaganda than reality but, even if so, moral equivalency is a disease. America believed it acted for good; China and Russia clearly do not–their motivations are purely cynical.

One of the most surprising things I encountered when researching my recent study on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups was that, while the military spends more time in the classroom or the training ground going over its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department has never really conducted a full lessons-learned review with the diplomats who actually drive policy. Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Unfortunately, that seems to apply to the State Department, not only in the current administration but in the last ten or so.

It would be wrong to blame all chaos on Obama. He may have ceded the ground, but ultimately it is the dictators who are to blame. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top administration officials to sit back and consider the state of the world and what the United States might have done differently at key inflection points in order to prevent the current situation. Only then can the United States learn from its mistakes and seek to salvage what is left.

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Clinton’s Task: Spin the Unspinnable

Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, was apparently assembled “with an assist”–according to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani–from what Clinton calls her “book team.” And if Kakutani’s review is any indication, Clinton’s team was burdened by its task.

The book is understood to be Clinton’s campaign manifesto, and the book’s release–officially, tomorrow–is being treated as a campaign launch. Clinton has been dogged by one question in particular: What did she accomplish as secretary of state? She has even been unable to answer the question herself. And though I (like Clinton, presumably) haven’t read her book, early indications are that her book team was unable to answer it as well.

After an undistinguished and at times dismal term as secretary of state, the book had two basic objectives: show Clinton to have accomplished something–anything really; and dispel the image Clinton cultivated of using the prestigious perch as an Instagram-based travelogue. Readers of the Times review will encounter, early on, the following sentence: “The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

This sounds promising. A few paragraphs later, however, they will be told: “For readers who are less policy-oriented, there are personal tidbits strewn lightly throughout, like small chocolate Easter eggs.” It is unthinkable that a great many readers will press on past that sentence, instead reaching for the ginger ale to calm the rising tide of nausea that accompanies particularly greasy Clinton-worship. For those who couldn’t tough it out, spoiler alert: there are precisely zero examples in the review of anything that even approaches portraying Hillary “as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

Oh well. What about Hillary’s other defenders in the press, perhaps those with a steady interest and experience in foreign affairs and issues relating to human rights? Enter Nicholas Kristof. He uses his Sunday column to defend Hillary Clinton’s tenure at State. It is a brutally awkward attempted complement that begins to absentmindedly sound more like a personal indictment. It is the Michael Scott wedding toast of pro-Hillary columns.

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Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, was apparently assembled “with an assist”–according to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani–from what Clinton calls her “book team.” And if Kakutani’s review is any indication, Clinton’s team was burdened by its task.

The book is understood to be Clinton’s campaign manifesto, and the book’s release–officially, tomorrow–is being treated as a campaign launch. Clinton has been dogged by one question in particular: What did she accomplish as secretary of state? She has even been unable to answer the question herself. And though I (like Clinton, presumably) haven’t read her book, early indications are that her book team was unable to answer it as well.

After an undistinguished and at times dismal term as secretary of state, the book had two basic objectives: show Clinton to have accomplished something–anything really; and dispel the image Clinton cultivated of using the prestigious perch as an Instagram-based travelogue. Readers of the Times review will encounter, early on, the following sentence: “The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

This sounds promising. A few paragraphs later, however, they will be told: “For readers who are less policy-oriented, there are personal tidbits strewn lightly throughout, like small chocolate Easter eggs.” It is unthinkable that a great many readers will press on past that sentence, instead reaching for the ginger ale to calm the rising tide of nausea that accompanies particularly greasy Clinton-worship. For those who couldn’t tough it out, spoiler alert: there are precisely zero examples in the review of anything that even approaches portraying Hillary “as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

Oh well. What about Hillary’s other defenders in the press, perhaps those with a steady interest and experience in foreign affairs and issues relating to human rights? Enter Nicholas Kristof. He uses his Sunday column to defend Hillary Clinton’s tenure at State. It is a brutally awkward attempted complement that begins to absentmindedly sound more like a personal indictment. It is the Michael Scott wedding toast of pro-Hillary columns.

“When politicians have trouble spinning their own glories, that’s a problem,” he begins. That is correct. He continues:

So it was bizarre that Hillary Rodham Clinton, asked at a forum in April about her legacy at the State Department, had trouble articulating it. That feeds into a narrative — awaiting her memoir on Tuesday — that she may have been glamorous as secretary of state but didn’t actually accomplish much.

In fact, that’s dead wrong, for Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy — just not the traditional kind. She didn’t craft a coalition of allies, like James Baker, one of the most admired secretaries of state. She didn’t seal a landmark peace agreement, nor is there a recognizable “Hillary Clinton doctrine.”

Uh-oh. Is it possible Clinton “achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy” yet that legacy was, at the same time, so subtle as to be unidentifiable even to Hillary herself? Apparently so. But what follows are a series of claims Kristof then, in the next breath, debunks himself.

For example, Kristof says “Clinton recognized that our future will be more about Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations.” Yet here’s his very next sentence: “She didn’t fully deliver on this ‘pivot’ — generally she was more successful at shaping agendas than delivering on them — but the basic instinct to turn our ship of state to face our Pacific future was sound and overdue.” She didn’t accomplish her goal, but that’s OK because she recognized, along with everyone else in the entire world, that China is important.

“She was often more hawkish than the White House,” Kristof argues, and notes Clinton’s support for arming Syrian rebels. This was “vetoed” by Obama, Kristof rightly explains, so it’s a bit unclear what part of nonexistent policies established this “hefty legacy” we keep hearing about.

Later, Kristof returns to the well-worn topic of Clinton prioritizing (translation: giving speeches about) the rights of women and girls worldwide. And here’s Kristof’s example: “The kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls in April was the kind of issue Clinton was out front of.” Yes, well, here’s the thing: Clinton wasn’t secretary of state anymore in April; John Kerry was.

It appears Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state was so forgettable as to be literally forgotten by her defenders. She is not in office currently, and her impact is, apparently, indistinguishable from when she was actually in office. This is the Clinton “legacy,” such as it is. Even the best “book team” can only dress it up so much.

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Edward Snowden’s Ego Trip

I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

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I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

“The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia,” he said in a second excerpt broadcast on NBC’s “Today Show.” “I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America, and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport. So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department.’ ”

That comment drew a sharp reaction from Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the same program. “For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly,” Mr. Kerry said. He added: “He can come home, but he’s a fugitive from justice, which is why he’s not being permitted to fly around the world. It’s that simple.”

Indeed, Secretary Kerry is on the mark. Snowden’s comment is a dumb thing to say, though it’s less likely that Snowden is stupid enough to believe it and more likely that he just assumes the American media and his cheerleaders back in the States are stupid enough to believe it. Kerry isn’t buying it, but his response to Snowden wasn’t done. Later in that story, Kerry adds:

“The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country, where he has taken refuge,” he said. “He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice and make his case. But instead he is just sitting there taking potshots at his country, violating his oath that he took when he took on the job he took.”

Shots fired, as they say. Snowden probably thinks this is some sort of victory, since it shows that he got under Kerry’s skin. But it won’t help Snowden or his followers that Washington is pushing back and engaging in the battle to define and frame Snowden and his antics. It may not lure him back home to face the consequences of his actions, but it’s still worth engaging Snowden’s selective smearing of American institutions for the benefit of states like China and Russia.

And the provocations go in both directions. It appears President Obama got under Snowden’s skin as well, leading Snowden to protest that he’s not just some low-level techie but a masterful weapon created by the elite minds at America’s espionage organizations:

“They’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience,” he said, “which is that I’ve worked for the Central Intelligence Agency undercover overseas, I’ve worked for the National Security Agency undercover overseas and I’ve worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” …

“I am a technical specialist,” he said. “I am a technical expert. I don’t work with people. I don’t recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States. And I’ve done that at all levels from — from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top. Now, the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say, ‘Oh well, you know, he’s — he’s a low level analyst.’ ”

How dare the president deny the “totality of [Snowden’s] experience.” Surely he’s aware of the work Snowden does when he powers down his laptop, jumps into the nearest phone booth, and emerges with cape flowing. Doesn’t the president know he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? That he’s the hero Gotham deserves? That he is the terror that flaps in the night?

I’m not sure if Snowden thinks it helps his case to declare that he is a defector of far greater significance than he’s been given credit for thus far. And to be honest, this cry for attention and validation is almost endearing. He just wants to be appreciated, to give his perpetual adolescence some meaning. Kerry’s quest to get Snowden to “man up” is probably futile, but good for Kerry for pointing it out–and for referring to Snowden’s new home as an “authoritarian country.” It’s a welcome dose of clear-eyed straight talk from Foggy Bottom.

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White House Can’t Regain a Deterrence It Never Had

The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

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The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

Deterrence, of course, is all about the perception of power. It hinges on convincing adversaries that, with force, guile or economic isolation, you can make them think twice about acting against American interests. And if there is a common element to the complaints being voiced these days about Mr. Obama, it is that he is on the verge of losing the momentum he gained in the first term when his “light footprint” strategy — the substitution of high technology and laser-focused action for brute force — created its own, subtle deterrent effect.

Whatever one’s view of the morality of using drones, the strikes in Pakistan during Mr. Obama’s first term — nearly a sixfold increase over the Bush years — wiped out Al Qaeda’s central command. Then there were the cyberstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the first use of a digital weapon that, with a few keyboard strokes, blew up roughly 1,000 centrifuges and delayed the Iranian program by upward of a year. And of course there was the Navy SEAL mission to kill Osama bin Laden three years ago; the primary mission was to settle scores with the most wanted terrorist on the planet, but the secondary effect was to amplify the message that if you attacked the United States, sooner or later you would be hunted down.

One of the problems with this story is the task of proving a negative. So the Times absurdly asserts that the Obama strategy “created its own, subtle deterrent effect” without offering anything to back it up. It’s fair enough to respond that the public doesn’t generally know what’s been deterred, but for an administration accused of weakness that begins to sound like the embarrassing “saved or created” formulation it used with regard to jobs (which the media also parroted, much to its own discredit). It sounds even more farfetched when you remember the paragraphs immediately preceding that declaration:

[French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius] went on to argue that in failing to enforce red lines with Syria, by backing away from a military strike that he threatened if the country used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama made an error that he is paying for to this day.

A few days later a top Southeast Asian official looked up from his lunch and asked, “If you were running China today, would you be convinced there is anything that America would take the risk of casualties to protect?” Certainly not some uninhabited islands off Japan, he added, referring to one of the several disputed territories China is aggressively claiming as its own.

In other words, the Obama administration’s “deterrent effect” is not so much “subtle” as nonexistent. And if the administration wants to build a true deterrent effect, Syria is the wrong place to look. Had the president hit Bashar al-Assad’s regime directly after it used chemical weapons, it might have established some deterrent to other dictators contemplating the use of chemical weapons. (Though it raises the question of whether we ought to spend our time building deterrence against the method by which dictators kill rather than the killing itself.)

But the president balked. Giving more assistance to the rebels, after they have lost so much momentum and after the administration has suggested its desire to see a stalemate instead of a victory by either side, is unlikely to make much of a difference and it’s certainly not going to establish deterrence. Just who and what behavior would such token gestures deter?

The president, according to the Times, wants to build the case for more intervention in Syria on the grounds that it’s no longer just a humanitarian crisis but one that poses a threat to Western security. That’s true–and it’s about time. But the declaration that he doesn’t want to intervene in humanitarian catastrophes and that he’ll intervene, ever so mildly, in other conflicts years after they begin means he’s not threatening to deter either kind.

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The Casualties of Obama’s War on Coal

This week President Obama is expected to announce new regulations on carbon emissions that will have a potentially devastating impact on America’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. The move was made possible by Supreme Court decisions that ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the right to regulate such emissions, giving the president virtual carte blanche to remake this sector of our economy without requiring congressional consent. As the New York Times reports today, this decision is being closely watched abroad as governments look to see whether the U.S. is setting a good example for other nations, such as China, whose economies are driven by coal and which do far more polluting of the atmosphere than America does.

Yet the Chinese aren’t the only ones following this issue. The president has already signaled that addressing climate change was one of the priorities of his second term as well as making it clear that he was eager to move ahead and govern by executive order rather than via the normal constitutional process that involves the legislative branch. As such, the White House rightly anticipates that this broadside aimed at the coal industry will be intensely popular with Obama’s core constituencies on the left as well as the liberal mainstream media. But while leading Democratic donors such as Tom Steyer will be cheering a measure that fits his ideological agenda, not everybody in the Democratic Party is going to be happy with what amounts to a new Obama war on coal. In particular, the Democrats’ brightest hope for stealing a Republican-controlled Senate seat this fall—Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes—may wind up paying a fearful price for Obama’s decision.

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This week President Obama is expected to announce new regulations on carbon emissions that will have a potentially devastating impact on America’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. The move was made possible by Supreme Court decisions that ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the right to regulate such emissions, giving the president virtual carte blanche to remake this sector of our economy without requiring congressional consent. As the New York Times reports today, this decision is being closely watched abroad as governments look to see whether the U.S. is setting a good example for other nations, such as China, whose economies are driven by coal and which do far more polluting of the atmosphere than America does.

Yet the Chinese aren’t the only ones following this issue. The president has already signaled that addressing climate change was one of the priorities of his second term as well as making it clear that he was eager to move ahead and govern by executive order rather than via the normal constitutional process that involves the legislative branch. As such, the White House rightly anticipates that this broadside aimed at the coal industry will be intensely popular with Obama’s core constituencies on the left as well as the liberal mainstream media. But while leading Democratic donors such as Tom Steyer will be cheering a measure that fits his ideological agenda, not everybody in the Democratic Party is going to be happy with what amounts to a new Obama war on coal. In particular, the Democrats’ brightest hope for stealing a Republican-controlled Senate seat this fall—Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes—may wind up paying a fearful price for Obama’s decision.

As the Times notes, the conundrum of America’s extremist environmentalist lobby lies in the fact that the U.S. is actually doing relatively little of the carbon damage that they believe is fueling global warming. The vast majority of the increase in emissions comes from developing economies around the globe, especially in places like China. While resistance to the sort of tough restrictions on carbon that environmentalists lust for is strong in nations that produce fossil-based fuels, the Chinese believe that the West should pay the steep economic price involved in such schemes while they and other developing nations are allowed to burn all the coal they want. By making his ruling, Obama won’t just be harming the U.S. economy. By setting a good example, Washington thinks their going first will somehow persuade the Chinese to follow suit.

This is highly unlikely. Though it pays lip service to global warming theories, China’s top priority is building their economy. Meanwhile, nations such as Russia are not shy about stating their unwillingness to stop burning coal. But by taking what he believes is the high road with respect to the environment, the president will be fulfilling not only the promises made to his domestic liberal constituencies but also behaving in a manner that is consistent with his belief in multilateral foreign policy.

But back at home this high-minded environmentalism may not play as well as he thinks. Many Americans fear that Obama will damage their economy while doing nothing to alter the warming equation that is being decided elsewhere. Though the media has followed the White House playbook in emphasizing any report that hypes the threat from global warming while downplaying any development that undermines this thesis, the public has demonstrated repeatedly that this issue is not a priority, especially when compared to their concerns about the economy and jobs. And this is exactly what the president’s orders will affect most grievously.

Among the biggest losers will be regions where the coal industry is a mainstay of the economy. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the best example of such a state is Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains the country’s most endangered Republican in an election cycle that should otherwise be quite favorable to the GOP. McConnell has been working hard to tie Grimes to Obama, a charge that she has steadfastly rejected. But the president’s regulatory war on coal will be a body blow to Grimes’s attempt to argue that it will be her and not Obama who will be on the ballot this November. Grimes smartly opposes the administration’s environmentalist stands with respect to coal, but the new orders will escalate the struggle to a point where it could play a crucial role in the midterms. Grimes has sought to make McConnell the main issue in the contest, something that is not to the advantage of the dour minority leader and longtime incumbent. But if the key issue is defense of Kentucky’s coal industry against the White House, it will be difficult for the Democrat to assert that she will be in a better position to resist this assault than the man who may be the majority leader of the upper body next January. In a contest to see who can be most hostile to Obama, the GOP has the edge over even the most independent Democrat.

The war on coal is exactly the ticket to fire up the president’s coastal elite base as well as very much what the international community wants. But it could be the death knell for Grimes’s Senate hopes. If that race makes the difference in deciding control of the Senate, it could be that global warming will be the issue that pushes Obama from a weak-second term incumbent to dead-in-the-water lame duck.

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